Business Name: The Rural Beacon Initiative, LLC
Mailing Address: 1003 Sandtrap Way, Durham, NC 27703
Farm Location: Piney Woods, NC
How did you hear about Slow Money NC?
I was recommended to the network by an associate and colleague, Joshua Humphreys with the Croatan Institute. Joshua and I have been formulating a partnership between Croatan and the Rural Beacon Initiative to advance land retention for black farmers and to deploy a “sustainability hub” in eastern North Carolina as a site model of how BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) landowners can take part in opportunities in regenerative agriculture.
Tell us your story. Who are you? What is your business idea?
William J. Barber III grew up in eastern North Carolina, where, under the tutelage of his father, Bishop William J. Barber II and mother, Rebecca Barber, he developed at an early age a deep commitment to social justice and environmental stewardship. He now works as an environmental and climate justice scholar and advocate, with nearly a decade of social justice organizing experience and deep academic training in both the science and the law behind environmental and climate issues.
William received his B.S. in Environmental Physics from North Carolina Central University and earned his juris doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of law, where he focused on environmental law and policy. He currently works as the Director of Climate and Environmental Justice at The Climate Reality Project, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. whose mission is to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis. He also serves as a member of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality Secretary’s Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board, as well as co-chair for the North Carolina Poor People’s Campaign Ecological Devastation committee.
William has several years of experience in grassroots and community organizing, working as a field secretary for the North Carolina NAACP for two years and serving as one of a three-member leadership team for Moral Freedom Summer, a long-term voter mobilization campaign spearheaded by the North Carolina NAACP. He also worked and collaborated with his father and the Poor People’s Campaign to cultivate a partnership with The Climate Reality Project focused on environmental justice.
He is interested in the renewable energy field and clean economy, specifically in initiatives that are being taken to promote opportunity for low-income communities and communities of color. He is also heavily interested in environmental policy, having completed work with several environmental advocacy groups, including the UNC Law Center for Climate, Energy, Environment, and Economics; Clean Water for North Carolina; Clean Energy Works, and the Coalition for Green Capital.
Most recently, he founded The Rural Beacon Initiative, LLC—a multi-member startup that provides consultation for groups looking to advance equity, climate justice, and environmental justice. Rural Beacon has evolved, exploring the role of green finance as a vehicle to address social disparities. William and the start-up were recently featured in PayPal’s Rising Leaders series.
The acquisition and conversion of the Vera Brown Farm is a brainchild of Rural Beacon, in partnership with Croatan Institute. The Vera Brown Farm is a beautiful 52-acre site located approximately 4 miles South of Hwy 64 on the West side of Free Union Road located in Eastern North Carolina, specifically Martin County. The site is located in the historic community of “Piney Woods” a tri-racial black, indigenous, and Caucasian community comprised of deep familial roots and a legacy of cooperation and self-determination. Piney Woods has historically been seen as a freedmen’s community; built by free people of color who were deeply committed to land and legacy. The Vera Brown Farm is also the ancestral home of Bishop William J. Barber II. The community’s historic significance and deep legacy of self-determination by the tri-racial black, indigneous, and white population was well-documented by Bishop Barber’s father and William’s grandfather, William J. Barber Sr., in Disciple Assemblies of Eastern North Carolina (1966).
Scroll to the bottom to learn more about the history and current state of Piney Woods.
Recognizing the importance of preserving the history and identity of the community, and the
opportunity to create a scalable model of sustainability, the Rural Beacon Initiative seeks to purchase
the Vera Brown Farm as the first step in developing a demonstrative “sustainability hub” in rural
NC. The project would consist of a low carbon, self-sustaining, regenerative food system site,
that would work to address food access in the surrounding community and serve as a
demonstration site for individuals looking to see sustainable agriculture in practice. An example
of the vision can be seen here: Additionally, the site would also be coupled with site based solar, and house a cultural and educational center designed to give community members and visitors an opportunity to cultivate
skills in ‘environmental sustainability’ while also being exposed to a history and practice of
‘social sustainability’ through education and cultural training in the history of the surround
community and North Carolina social movements. This would be similar to the famed
Highlander Resource and Education Center: https://highlandercenter.org/
The project would also serve as a test case for deployment of an innovative financing and
underwriting package to secure the farm and fund conversion of the site to a regenerative
practice. This collaboration between Rural Beacon Initiative, Croatan Institute, and Foodshed
Capital will be closely studied and recorded for its value in creating a replicable model by which
additional BIPOC landowners may be advised in similar conversion projects for their land. A
focus will be placed on the co-benefits of emissions reduction and health of the land, as well as
wealth-generation opportunities for families.
Through the Rural Beacon Initiative (RBI), the Barber family would like to ensure that the farm, a roughly +50 ac. constellation of cropland and forest, with an historic homestead and barn, remain under family stewardship in order to avoid on-going Black land loss in the region. RBI and Croatan have a strong vision for the site becoming a hub and model for regenerative agroforestry, rural resilience and community economic development in a highly distressed area of eastern NC, and the Institute is already working with Rural Beacon to develop conservation finance strategies to support a regenerative transition of this land once it is under Rural Beacon’s stewardship. In addition, subsequent phases of the project would seek to deploy community solar to deepen the sites off-grid capability, and a cultural and educational center to document and train future generations in the history of progressive activism in eastern NC generally, and the contributions of the Barber family to NC, specifically (similar to the model of the Highlander Research and Educational Center in Tennessee).
The project will also have the opportunity to inform the development of new place-based financing model that could be deployed for other sites through Regenerative Organic Agricultural Districts (ROADs), beginning in NC — with Rural Beacon sitting as a place-based partner to Croatan Institute.
Please briefly describe your commitment to sustainable food systems in North Carolina.
As a climate and environmental scholar and activist, I am fully committed to the development of new models of existence that match the urgent moment we are in with a burgeoning climate crisis. At the center of this conversation must be a mass return to sustainable agricultural practices, that avoid further harming the planet, but also ensure access to local, healthy food that is accessible and affordable for frontline communities. Success in this arena is fully dependent on the ability of BIPOC landowners and farmers to take leadership roles in this, and critical to this, is the creation of models that demonstrate to families and communities across the region opportunities to finance and deploy projects . The site and project seeks to provide that real-time demonstration that could both fill an acute need for a BIPOC operated sustainable food hub in the surrounding community and a broader need for this demonstration.
Additionally, understanding how food and food access serves as a necessary for self-determination for communities is a critical commitment of mine. Current investments in sustainable technologies, including clean energy and regenerative agriculture can result in increased self-determination for communities on the frontlines of environmental impact. As a native of eastern North Carolina, I grew up witnessing the strength, resilience, and dignity that manifested itself in rural communities. I grew up hearing stories of legacy and innovation that were shared amongst families that had often lived and worked on land in areas for generations, often in the face of incredible societal challenge. The project would channel inspiration from these stories into a model that will inspire other regional leaders.
What will your sales be? What do you anticipate your profits/your margins will look like? How will you make the money to pay this loan back?
The property is already generating income from a traditional tenant. RBI also has multiple consulting contracts in place that will serve as an additional revenue stream for the payments. The majority of profit to pay the loan back will come from income generated from the actual conversion of the farm to a regenerative agricultural practice.
Do you have people who would vouch for your credit worthiness? Who are they?
Joshua Humphreys-President, Croatan Institute; (919) 794-7440 X102
Jeffrey Schub–Executive Director, Coalition for Green Capital;
Karenna Gore-Executive Director, Center for Earth Ethics
Catherine Coleman Flowers-Vice Chair, White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council
Tell us about your business background. Have you been in business before?
In 2019, I founded the Rural Beacon Initiative, LLC—a multi-member startup that provides consultation for groups looking to advance equity, climate justice, and environmental justice. Since then, Rural Beacon has evolved, exploring the role of green finance as a vehicle to address social disparities. The team has grown from a team of one to a team of three in short order and was also recently featured in PayPal’s Rising Leaders series:
How much money do you need to borrow to make your project work? How long do you think you would need to pay that back? Please contact me for this information.
Are there other lenders involved in your project or business?: We have a letter of commitment to assist in funding the initial acquisition of the property from Foodshed Capital, CDFI, through its Black Farmer Equity Fund, which is intended to offer reparative capital to Black farmers and address land retention for BIPOC
What is your timeline for this project? Would you like it to start in a month? 6 months? A year?: We are seeking to close on the initial acquisition of the land by April 3, 2022.
Is there anything else we forgot to ask you?: We are deeply appreciate of your consideration and hope you will join us in this venture.
History of Piney Woods
The historic Piney Woods community has a deep history of involvement in progressive social
movements both locally and statewide. In the early 20 th century, the community birthed some of
the most premier African-American religious institutions and leaders within the Disciples of
Christ Assemblies, including Elder Wm. Preston Powell and the Free Union (Uniontown)
Church of Christ. Free Union was a Disciple church prior to the Civil War, was a racially mixed
church, and has been listed as older than the 14 principal churches in the Washington-Norfolk District.
This is documented in several sources including History of Piney Woods, Jamesville,
North Carolina as told by Vera Brown and Disciple Assemblies of Eastern North Carolina by
William Joseph Barber Sr. (father of William J. Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign and
grandfather of William J. Barber III of The Rural Beacon Initiative.)
In his Disciples Assemblies of Eastern North Carolina (1966), William J. Barber Sr. speaks to
the historic nature of the community:
“The community dates at least back to the late 1700s or early 1800s. Its original population was
an admixture of Indian and Free Negro. The Indian heritage is Croatan and possibly Tuscarora,
with the latter probably dominating. One of its early founders was David Boston, probably
Tuscarora descent. This has been handed down by traditional account to his descendants.
Added to this is the fact that the name of David Boston does not show up on the census records
until 1860 and then in the column designated mulatto or other…” and that prior to this time, the
censis records specifically mention two categories for non-whites. The first of these is “Free
Negro” and the second is “Mulatto or other, excepting non-tax paying Indians.” David Boston
resided in Martin County and owned property during this period for county records sho that on
December 12, 1816, in the County of Martin, there was a certain parcel of land bough from one
Francis Ward for “one hundred dollars paid to me in hand by David Boston….” Between 1816
and 1843, David Boston made about 10 other such transactions. Yet his name does not appear
on the census records. this leaves one to assume that tradition is correct in classifying him and
his mother as Indian. It must be stated, however, that the name Boston shows up in 1830 census
records both in Bertie and Washington County records — though not the name David Boston
(nor that of his brother of which indications are his name was Robert Boston.) (Land
transactions were also made during this period by one Robert Boston.)
Current State of Piney Woods
Piney Woods currently exists as a sleepy rural town comprised of a few hundred families.
Economic development is sparse in the area, except for a few local farmers and a local timber
conglomerate. An aging community, emigration, and encroaching industry threaten to erase the
history of this area—one of the oldest historically freedmen communities in NC. We believe
deployment of the Vera Brown Sustainability Hub represents an opportunity to preserve the
legacy of the community while bringing new opportunities in sustainability and tourism to the